The worlds of David Hockney

Hockney is not slowing down at 72. He's had three big exhibitions this year and is enjoying a "late flowering."
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

David Hockney, renowned chronicler of Los Angeles’ sun-drenched life and landscapes, hasn’t been around much lately. He’s much more likely to be painting these days in his native Yorkshire than in his adopted Southern California.

But unlock the studio door of his secluded Hollywood Hills house and see what you find. Just inside the door stands a row of white, untouched canvases of varying sizes, each on its own easel. Ready on trays nearby are fresh white palettes and neat rows of paints and brushes.

Hockney’s gallery: An article about David Hockney last week incorrectly identified Douglas Baxter as the director of PaceWildenstein gallery. His title is president. —

Hockney is ready as well. He makes a long thin line of Venetian Red paint straight across the top of two large canvases set up next to each other on adjoining easels. “Sometimes,” he says, “I just begin.”

Soon appear the first shapes of the Grand Canyon, a favorite place and painting subject for the 72-year-old English painter. He’s in town for just a few days but he left time for a car trip to the Grand Canyon and back. He planned to paint the Grand Canyon picture when he got back to Yorkshire, but it seems he just couldn’t wait.

He adds more shapes and colors, some sky. Working with great concentration, he paints with no photos, no sketches, no notes. “It’s just from memory,” he says, “but it’s very strong, my memory. I sat an hour in one spot, taking it all in, and in the past, I’d stay looking at it for a week. I’m very attracted to the great open spaces of the West.”

He is also very attracted to the great open spaces of Yorkshire, as Hockney followers have seen since the late ‘90s. He has called the rural landscapes there the biggest spaces in England, painting its lush fields, trees and hills. “As we say in Hollywood, I’m on location,” he says, laughing.

More accurately, home is both places now. A great admirer of Rembrandt, Hockney has a complete set of Benesch’s “The Drawings of Rembrandt,” both here and at his Bridlington home in Yorkshire. On one wall of the study in Los Angeles is his celebrated 1997 painting, “The Road to York Through Sledmere,” and, he says, in Bridlington there are a few images of Los Angeles as well.

He’s gone back and forth between his two countries for years, referring to himself as an “English Los Angeleno.” But his passion to paint Yorkshire in all seasons has kept his trips home to Hollywood shorter and less frequent, while his hearing problems have curtailed his sociableness. During a chat over tea at home, he is endlessly eloquent about the worlds he lives in and the worlds he paints, the new technologies that intrigue him and the predecessors who inspire him.

Born and raised in Bradford, England, Hockney has lived in a sprawling multicolored Hollywood Hills home a few miles from the Hollywood Bowl since 1978. Taking in his bright blue porch, the strong sunlight coming in through all the windows, and the hundreds of books lining the walls, he says, “Is this home? Of course it is. I’ve been in this house for 30 years. It’s full of books I read. I’ve not been away longer than six months, and all the paintings are sent back here as well. This is my enclave, my little bit of sanity. There’s a quite sophisticated city out there, yet you can live privately in it. And there’s that marvelous light.”

But the lure of family, old friends and Yorkshire landscapes has never really gone away. As the unmarried son, he says, he went home for Christmas every year, and for the last 10 years before his mother died in 1999, he would spend a week with her every three months. In her later years, she lived in the coastal town of Bridlington, a few hours from Bradford, near where a teenage Hockney rode his bicycle to work in the fields.

He rarely stayed in England for more than two weeks until 1997, when his good friend and supporter Jonathan Silver was dying and Hockney decamped to Yorkshire for four months. “Jonathan said, ‘Why don’t you paint Yorkshire again? You haven’t since you were a student,’ and I did,” says Hockney. “I did four quite big paintings during that time. I would take them over for him to see.”

Hockney would return to Yorkshire for longer and longer stays, and by 2005 he was painting the countryside en plein air, his easel -- or, sometimes, easels -- set up outdoors on site. When the freshly painted canvases grew too large and unwieldy to move back and forth from the outdoors to home, he began to create paintings made of multiple smaller canvases -- nine, 15 or more -- placed together. To help him visualize work at that scale, he uses digital photographic reproductions of the work.

He may be in his 70s, but Hockney has speeded up, not slowed down. “I’ve never known him to work so intensely,” says David Juda, his longtime London art dealer. “It is like a late flowering, and I think he’s doing some of the best work he’s ever done.”

Juda’s gallery, Annely Juda Fine Art, hosted a Hockney show in May, the first of three big exhibitions the painter has had this year. Between April and September, some 100,000 visitors were reported at the Kunsthalle Würth in Schwäbisch Hall, Germany, to see “David Hockney: Just Nature.” And PaceWildenstein opened a two-venue show of his Yorkshire landscapes at its 57th Street and Chelsea locations in New York in October.

Pace’s “David Hockney: Paintings 2006-2009" is also running for twice the time of the gallery’s usual exhibitions, adds PaceWildenstein president Douglas Baxter. “This is his first show of new paintings in New York in almost 14 years,” says Baxter. “I felt for somebody of David’s stature to go that long without showing in New York, he needed to come back in a big way.”

The works in New York are oil paintings, but Hockney hasn’t given up his fascination with technology. His London show last May was printed computer drawings of people and landscapes; he has also created art on faxes and, most recently, his iPhone. As he demonstrates for a visitor, the phone becomes a drawing pad as he uses its Brushes application and his thumb to rapidly depict an ashtray, complete with one of his ever-present cigarettes, which he sketches, then lights up.

Hockney doesn’t go out much anymore, saying his diminished hearing means that “being social gets to be hard work.” Bridlington is several hours from London, he notes, making drop-in company unlikely, and the nearest town is 25 miles away. He calls it “a sleepy little place,” of only about 30,000 people. “If you were young, you would leave it. But it’s a tranquil place for me. Because the office is in L.A., somebody else is doing the work. My only worry is the painting I’m doing. Nothing else.”

He recently learned his ancestors were farm laborers. “Probably that’s why I feel something for the landscape,” he says. “There’s a 35-mile radius of wonderful agricultural ground there. Quiet villages. Totally unspoiled. No white lines in the road. Yours is the only car. I realized that winter had far more color than I thought, and you get used to a bit of cold. In summer, it’s light at 4:30 in the morning and not dark until 11:30 at night. I’m a very early riser, and I don’t like to miss that beautiful early morning light. It’s a great place for me to have found at my age.”

It certainly seems that way. Hockney first used the top floor of the Bridlington house as a studio, then recently added a second, much larger studio just a few minutes away. Each day’s work is photographed, and Hockney generally takes a photographic print home with him. “I prop the reproduction right by the bed, so it is the last thing I see at night and the first thing I see in the morning,” he explains. “It’s like sleeping in the studio. Like Van Gogh.”

Hockney created a 50-canvas painting called “Bigger Trees Near Warter, 2007,” for London’s Royal Academy of Arts a few years ago (which he later gifted to Tate Britain) and, in January 2012, he is scheduled to take over the Royal Academy with his work. There is a mock-up of the museum in his Hollywood Hills studio, and many of the tiny galleries already have miniature images of paintings up on their walls.

“He seems to be engaged with some of the most exciting and focused work of his life,” observes Stephanie Barron, L.A. County Museum of Art senior curator of modern art, who has presented three major Hockney exhibitions since 1988. “In looking at the mastery that Hockney has brought to his work in the last several years, I can’t help but think of the later work of Titian, Rembrandt, Turner and Picasso.”